Stuff that’s good for nothing is the hardest stuff to get rid of. An old shoebox filled with baseball cards, my first-grade progress report, and a photograph of a forgotten girlfriend and three of her friends whose names I’ve long ago forgotten. An address book with handwritten, phone numbers, a deck of cards missing two aces, seashells brought back from the Gulf of Mexico around my eighth birthday, and a rock my grandmother brought back from the West – I think it is copper, or I remember being told it’s copper. The stuff of closets, desk drawers, and attic boxes, the passing of time is measured out in stuff that’s good for nothing except soliciting the memory away from who we are now to who we were then.
After decades, my parents are leaving their house for a new one. Now it is time to start deciding what will move with them and what will get left behind. The obvious stuff goes: furniture, kitchen stuff, pictures of me, laundry machines, and yard rocks (don’t ask). But what about the less obvious stuff? The stuff no one’s noticed in years. Where will it go? Will it go?
Last week my dad pulled out a model ship we built for a fifth-grade science project. Well, my dad had built it; I had stood in the garage and watched him – that was called helping. This wasn’t a model ship that came in a box from a store; this ship came from the hardware store in the form of two-by-fours, wood glue, nails, and shiny paint. I remember my dad using a motorized saw, nailing one piece of wood onto another piece, cutting dowels to make three masts, and spray painting the cardboard sails silver. He had explained each step of the construction. But I was ten. I didn’t understand. I wanted to play Atari – Space Invaders or Asteroids. The ship, though, could have traversed the globe: it was a perfect, miniaturized, pirate ship. The next day when I took it to school, Mike Corbin asked me if he could buy it from me because it was “rad.” I said no; it was my ship that my dad and I made together, and it remained in my parent’s house for the next 35 years.
When my dad pulled the model boat off the self, the avalanche of memories drew me back to the crowded garage, the yellow, Oldsmobile station wagon, the smell of garage-kept fuels, the silver-painted worktable. But now what? With the boat in my hand, did it merit a move? The little ship had become a vessel. But instead of sailing over the water, it carried memory. It was a memory. My dad stood at the top of the stairs holding the ship in his hand and asked me if I wanted to carry it home. I thought about all the years it would sit on a shelf in my house or be put in a rarely looked in closet. And then what? How long would I keep it? How many years? Was that childhood memory worth tangibly holding? To let my fingers and hands physically touch a three decades old memory?
“No, I don’t want it,” I said.
The ship only would accumulate and ripen a fifth-grade memory. But it was a good memory, so why would I say I didn’t want it? There is the obvious answer: if I kept everything that evoked a memory, my house would be filled with clutter. But there is the not so obvious answer too. We sometimes choose to let memories go, to forget.
So I watched as my dad put the ship in the trash and I couldn’t help but feel I was letting go of that “night before it was due” memory. Without the ship to remind me of the cold, winter day with the kerosene heater burning in the garage, the memory will fade until it is forgotten, then it will be as though it never happened.
How many things have I forgotten? How much of my life is simply gone already because I don’t remember anymore? I can’t help but ask if it matters? Did it even really happen if I can’t remember? Maybe this is why people rent storage garages and overflow their attics and submerge their basements with seemingly meaningless stuff. It isn’t because they are materialistic, necessarily, but these things are imbibed with memory, stories too important to let go, a sort of caged memoir.
Who hasn’t reveled in a tucked away box of photos or a scrapbook gone missing for a decade? It isn’t the thing itself that it so appealing, but the memories unleashed.
There are such rich Christian imperatives on remembering. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” “The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” And what Christian altar is not properly adorned with the words, “Do this in memory of me”? Even God puts the rainbow in the sky in order to jog God’s memory; otherwise God might forget and rain might never end.
But it is just as much a gift to learn to forget, to practice forgetting, to let go of the past and accept that our life is now. Forgetting has its place in the bible too. Here’s a passage you won’t read in Sunday school. “Give strong drink…[and] let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.” And, “when you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan and the widow.” And Paul adds his thoughts, “but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind.”
“The cloud of unknowing,” writes the anonymous fourteenth century mystic, “is a kind of darkness about your mind.” It is a place of unlearning. “You will seem to know nothing and feel nothing except a naked intent towards God in the depths of your being.” This cloud of unknowing resides between you and God. It is a place of blessed ignorance, the place we are to “learn to be at home.” But it is only as effective on our mediation towards God as the “cloud of forgetting” we create below ourselves. “Thinking and remembering are forms of spiritual understanding,” the mystic writes, “but I tell you that everything you dwell upon…becomes an obstacle to the union with God.”
The Christian life is paradoxes stacked up in a box of contradictions. Easy straightforward answers, certainty, concretized convections trip up and bring down well-intentioned souls. Remembering is an involuntary action as much as forget is. And what we can’t help but do, we must practice and cultivate as spiritual discipline. Our entire lives are gifts to remember, each new day a prized memory. But as the Preacher of the Hebrew Scriptures teaches us that there is a time for this and a time that, there is a time for remembering and a time for forgetting.
I’m having a hard time convincing myself that forgetting good memories can be a gift. When I was a minister I spent a lot of time with the salts of the earth who no longer knew their daughters and sons. My grandmother in those last years forgot me. Maybe there is a joy in forgetting painful memories and maybe forgetting good memories is painless. How can you feel what you no longer remember? But there is pain in having been forgotten. And there is a loss of self, a sort of death, in forgetting. “The dead know nothing,” the Preacher teaches. “Even the memory of them is lost.” They are both the forgetting and the forgotten.
Death though is not the end, and remembering and knowing are not the traits of a good relationship. “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know,” writes the mystic. “Though we cannot know him we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought…In the real contemplative work you must…cover it over with a cloud of forgetting.”
When the ship and the cold garage recede from reflection, maybe the cloud of forgetting will be merciful and grant me a contemplative work that leaves memory behind. All that I have forgotten, all that was once me that has be sweep aside by the failure of my mind, even those good memories of a father and a son can be placed on the altar – the cloud of forgetting – but love still remains, even forgotten love. No matter what oblivion awaits my mind, no matter how much is left behind, when dark clouds shroud me from everyone and everything I love, a love surpassing understanding will suffer, die, and make life new again.